The front-runner in Israel's upcoming election said in an interview published Monday that he would expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank if he's elected premier, threatening to put him at odds with the Obama administration.
Hawkish Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, already a critic of U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, said he would allow the settlements to expand to accommodate "natural growth," though that is ruled out in the internationally backed "road map" peace plan that serves as the basis for negotiations.
"Natural growth" refers to building new housing to accommodate growing families among the settlers.
The first U.S. call to freeze settlement construction including "natural growth" came in a document compiled in 2001 by envoy George Mitchell, whose goal was to stop Israeli-Palestinian violence that erupted a few months earlier.
Netanyahu's remarks were published two days before Mitchell was expected in the region at the beginning of another stint as the U.S. peace envoy. With Israel's election just two weeks away and polls showing Netanyahu with the best chance to win, Israel and the United States appeared headed for a clash.
Envoy arrives Wednesday
Mitchell is expected to meet with Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, after he arrives Wednesday. President Barack Obama has pledged to dive into Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking at the beginning of his term.
The violent takeover of Gaza by the Islamic Hamas in June 2007 has complicated peace efforts.
On Jan. 17, Israel ended a devastating three-week military offensive there to stop daily rocket barrages, leaving Hamas firmly in control.
State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said the purpose of Mitchell's trip to the region is to consult on a range of issues, including containing arms smuggling into Gaza by Hamas. He said Mitchell will not meet Hamas leaders.
U.S. policy supports creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza next to Israel, but Netanyahu, who served as Israel's prime minister from 1996 to 1999, has always opposed giving up territory in the West Bank, maintaining that Israel needs to control it for security.
Netanyahu was quoted by the Haaretz daily as telling international Mideast envoy Tony Blair on Sunday that he would allow settlements to expand.
"I have no intention of building new settlements in the West Bank," Netanyahu was quoted as saying. "But like all the governments there have been until now, I will have to meet the needs of natural growth in the population. I will not be able to choke the settlements."
A Netanyahu spokeswoman, Dina Libster, confirmed the quotes were accurate. Blair's office did not return calls seeking comment.
280,000 settlers in West Bank
Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future state that would include the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. They say Israel's settlements, now home to 280,000 people, are illegal encroachments on their land. Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, dismantling its settlements.
Nearly all Israeli settlement construction over the past decade has been in existing West Bank communities. Olmert has approved building in settlements he says Israel intends to keep in a peace settlement.
Netanyahu has said he would try to refocus peace talks on building the Palestinian economy and governing institutions instead of key issues like borders, Jerusalem, settlements and Palestinian refugees, which are at the center of the U.S.-backed talks.
Netanyahu's approach does not sit well with Palestinians, who want talks on a peace treaty.
The Feb. 10 election will be Israel's fifth in a decade.
The latest polls show Netanyahu's Likud leading Kadima, the party of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and its candidate for premier, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, by about five seats in the 120-seat parliament.
The polls showed hawkish parties winning a majority in the parliament, giving Netanyahu the best chance to form a government if the trends hold.
But Likud would get only around 30 seats, forcing Netanyahu to make a coalition of powerful parties, any one of which could topple the government at will.
Israelis vote for parties, not candidates for premier. The head of the party winning the most seats in parliament gets the nod to form a government. Livni tried to put together a new coalition after Olmert resigned in September because of corruption allegations, but she failed, for the first time in Israel's history.
That forced an election, keeping Olmert in office.